||violin, cello, piano
||18:00 (5’, 4’, 6’, 3’)
with the generous support of
Ontario Arts Council
- Pulsating jellyfish
- Swaying branch with fluttering leaves
- Drifting, disappearing clouds
- Raindrops falling in puddle
The work's four movements may be performed in any order, singly, or in any combination.
Dedicated to the Gryphon Trio: Roman Borys, Jamie Parker & Annalee Patipatanakoon
Periodic natural phenomena are, paradoxically, aesthetically appealing precisely because they are not, in fact, exactly repetitive. Slight irregularities strike a delicate balance between predictability and chaos, producing an endless set of continuing variations—sameness without uniformity. Contemplating ocean waves is soothing; observing the ticking seconds-hand on a clock, mind-numbing.
I have frequently evoked nature's visual rhythms in my compositions, mostly intuitively. Intuition, however, has its limits, and risks rewarding prejudice. We may think we know how waves behave, but do we really? The notion that an empirical approach might reveal new insight led to Nature Rhythms I.
The four movements, related in concept, but in all other respects independent, may be performed in any order, singly, or in any combination. Three draw their basic material from frame-by-frame analysis of videos: of a swaying aspen tree, of raindrops falling in a puddle—which both I shot myself; and of jellyfish, from the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
How I analyzed my first subject, jellyfish, whose mesmerizing locomotion, characterised by gently accelerating pulsations, shall illustrate my approach. Using motion analysis software intended for athletic performance, I advanced, frame by frame, using markers to measure the rates at which a particular jelly's bell expanded and contracted. From about a minute and a half of footage I catalogued 25 such cycles in five different jellies. By quantizing the numbers for human musical performance, I settled on six different types of cycles, i.e. six variations on what at first glance would seem to be a uniform pulsating motion.
These rhythmic cycles underlie the opening sequence of entries in "Pulsating jellyfish": the violin suggests the pulsing effect with quick bow speed, the cello following in imitation. For subsequent entries, I simulated the order of cycle types and lengths using a random number generator. All movements feature at least one whimsical, or rather, intuitive, element: here, the piano’s rapid scales suggest the jellies’ fluidly unravelling, arabesque-like arms. Harmony and melody, in all movements, are also entirely my own. These "arms," for instance, consist of octave-non-repeating, seven-note scales, whose strangeness fits the subject.
"Swaying branch with fluttering leaves" likewise combines an empirical element, a swaying branch, with an invented one, the fluttering leaves. The branch I studied swung like a pendulum across a wide arc, its uneven movement caused by continual changes in wind gusts. I represented movement across this arc by a multi-octave C major arpeggio, whose jubilant unfolding first sounds in the piano. The rustling leaves, their fragmented oscillations variously dividing the beat, and generated randomly, provide a murmuring accompaniment.
"Drifting, disappearing clouds" is the only movement not based on any video analysis. Instead, I spent hours, supine, gazing at the clouds, fascinated by their slow trajectory across a clear sky on windy days. I would track a particular cloud, noting its gradual metamorphosis, then gasp at its dissolution into the blue sky. I also delighted whenever a faster-moving cloud would cross a slower-moving one, suggesting two conflicting celestial tempos.
"Raindrops falling in a puddle" ought to have been the simplest to compose but was actually the most challenging to realize. After a rainfall, I filmed water droplets falling sporadically from a tree into a puddle below. There is suspense in the ever-changing time interval between drops; beauty in the ensuing concentric ripples; thrill when two drops fall at close intervals and their concentric waves collide! Each drop became a pizzicato note (the collision) that initiates the ripple, a rapid scale in the piano. But what if two drops fall in proximity? To avoid simple beat subdivisions, I quantized to include attack-points offset by triplet rests, a technique that required using a type of fractional metre notation. The musical effect, however, is straightforward: a drop interrupts the flow of the previous ripple, thereby resetting the tempo, in the same way that each successive drop captures our attention at the expense of the previous one. True to life, the movement is riddled with pauses, moments when stillness reigns in the puddle.
I am grateful to my brother, Dr. David Rival, a fluid dynamicist, for stimulating conversations concerning the science of waveforms; the Gryphon Trio, for believing in the project; and the Ontario Arts Council, for supporting it financially.
For score perusal and parts rental information,
contact Robert Rival.